January 15, 2014
New Horizons Spacecraft Gets Closer And Closer To Pluto
[ Watch The Video: Countdown To Pluto ]
Gerard LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is one of the fastest ever built. Launched in 2006 and traveling at one million miles per day, its destination is one of the most distant bodies in our solar system, the ex-planet Pluto.
According to NASA, New Horizons reached Jupiter in February 2007 and with a close fly by it received a gravitational push to shorten its destination time by three years. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute and the mission’s principal investigator says, “The encounter begins next January. We’re less than a year away.”
July 2015 will be New Horizon's closest approach, when it flies only 6,200 miles from Pluto. But, the mission will begin in January 2015 with photographs using Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The exact location of Pluto is uncertain so these photographs will help mission control pinpoint exactly where Pluto is.
Stern explains, “LORRI will photograph the planet against known background star fields. We’ll use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from the spacecraft, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.”
At first, the images will be just dots, but by late April 2015 the photos will exceed the best images taken by Hubble. When New Horizons pass by Pluto in July 2015, spectacular images will be taken. If the craft was at the same altitude over Earth and took a photo, it could reveal individual structures and their shape.
Stern adds, “Humankind hasn't had an experience like this - an encounter with a new planet - in a long time. Everything we see on Pluto will be a revelation.”
July 1965 is when Mariner 4 flew past Mars revealing the surface as a desolate wasteland. New Horizon's fly by of Pluto will occur almost exactly 50 years later. Pluto’s surface is unexplored, and this mission will give astronomers a new look of what's on the the dwarf planet.
Pluto has five moons, Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, but Stern thinks, “There is a real possibility that New Horizons will discover new moons and rings as well,” he says. “We’re flying into the unknown and there is no telling what we might find.”
The National Academy of Sciences place this mission among the highest priority for this decade. After New Horizons passes Pluto, it will then continue into the Kuiper Belt. It will study the region up to a billion miles from Neptune’s orbit where as many as a billion mini-planets larger than 6 miles in diameter may exist.
Progress of the mission can be seen on New Horizons Mission website.